SUNNING OF THE BUDDHA FESTIVAL
We stepped off the plane in Langzhou (lahng-zho) a city situated
on the Yalu River in the far Northwest corner of China. Carol and
I met on the plane from the States and would be roommates for the
balance of the tour that would meet us in Xining (sh-ning), giving
us the rest of the day to search for adventure in Langzhou. Coming
from the airport we hand-talked to families harvesting
wheat, watched roof tiles being formed and set to dry in the sun,
and bought white peaches which were just harvested and sold alongside
the road. They were juicy and delicious.
the way to our hotel our guides took us to a Taoist monastery [click
image] and we found artifacts that were unusual and irresistible.
I bought a yak tail wand, used for sweeping away evil spirits; two
walnuts carved with plants, ghosts, and many Buddhasall on
one walnut; and a gourd about the size of a large walnut, carved
with a story of three beautiful ladies lounging in a garden filled
with plants and trees. They were astonishingso small, the
work so delicate.
At our hotel another guide met us and she took us to a park where
a festival was in progress. This festival allowed anyone, who so
desired, to stand in front of a microphone on the stage and vent
their joys, angers and/or complaints in public, in song. Even though
we couldnt understand a word, it was priceless, something
one would never see in the States. All of the men were dressed in
Mao-dark-blue with caps. The women mostly wore traditional dress.
Carol and I caused quite a stir when we stepped into that park.
Carol is very tall, slim in her 40s. I am 5'6", white-haired,
plump and 63 [in 1990]. Whenever we stopped walking we were hemmed-in
with people. They were tiny, 5' tall (or less) with jet-black hair
and eyes. Their mouths dropped open at the sight of these strange
creatures. The women pinched my arms and bosoms and then gave me
a thumbs-up signcongratulating me for being fat and old, I
guess. They just looked at Carols height in awe. It finally
was apparent that we were disrupting
the festival, so we left, exhausted from so much attention. I do
remember, vividly, the feeling that I had come home, that
I was in a country where I felt complete. In the subsequent seven
years of traveling and working in China, that feeling never left
The next morning we settled ourselves on the train. Our seats were
next to the window and we were able to purchase foodroasted
corn on the cob from the vendors at the frequent stops to pick up
were many people heading to Xining to participate in the Sunning
of the Buddha Festival. This is an annual affair attracting Tibetan
Buddhists from all over, but most particularly those areas in China
adjacent to Tibet. The Tibetans dont really look Chinese.
Their skin has a warmer tone and I would imagine that their heritage
contains a lot of the Mongol. Most of the difference is the serenity
and welcome that their eyes and faces project. It is almost indescribable,
but every person I have talked to about Tibetans and Buddhism recognizes
this unique characteristic.
We arrived in Xining in time for dinner where we were introduced
to our fellow travelers. Carol and I were feeling a little iffy
after all the food we had eaten on the train, so we settled for
yak yogurt that I will proclaim is the best yogurt in the
Early the next morning we drove to the Taer lamasery where
the present Dalai Lama, a yellow hat Buddhist, spent the first four
years of his life. We were to wait for the monks to bring the ancient,
appliqued and embroidered silk tapestry from the monastery. It was
rolled up, 50 yards long, and would be carried to the site of the
Sunning on the shoulders of many monks. The men of the village ran
back and forth under the tapestry between the monks, knowing that
this would bring them luck for the next year. We followed the entourage.
The excitement and energy built up as we began to feel the powerful
force of this event. It was a lovely, warm summer day. There were
thousands of people waiting, very few foreigners, so we were also
a focus of curiosity. Through some unknown courtesy an eight-foot
passage was left open in the middle of this massive crowd. One used
it only to move from one viewpoint to another.
monks moved up the side of the hill and laid the tapestry across
the entire hilltop.
they walked around to the front of the roll and began to open the
by backing down the hillside.
face of the sacred cloth was covered with a thin yellow silk.
it was completely unrolled, the monks above gathered-in the silk...
the face of a black Buddha surrounded by his Guardians.
were no cheers, no applause, no yellingjust a quiet reverence
honoring this magnificent representation of the Beloved Buddha.
Two men broke from the crowd, slipped under the front edge of the
tapestry and began to slither on their stomachs toward the top of
the hill. The strength of their belief system, with them since the
day of their birth, must have filled them not only with His compassion,
but also the certainty that their effort would draw from Him a state
of grace that would carry them throughout the next year. He would
remain on the hillside all day in the sun and then be returned to
his sarcophagus to sleep for another year.
monks then gathered to parade through the village playing all of
their traditional instruments; horns, drums, and flutes, and they
carried many prayer flags. One cannot call the sound musical. A
better description would be visceral. It is a cacophony of banging,
screeching, and moaning that catches one right in the belly.
followed the parade into the village, taking pictures of the monks,
the women in their traditional dress, the two stupas, andof
all thingsa pig rooting in the mud. An old man kept following
me and speaking to me in Chinese. I kept shrugging my shoulders
and opening my hands intimating that I didnt understand what
he wanted. Finally, someone translated that he only wanted to know
how old I was. I told him with my fingers and he just beamed as
he nodded, implying, Me too.
There were several shops, as well as villagers sitting on the road,
selling weavings and jewelry, just the things that I might use in
my wearable art projects. There was a wealth of choices, but I stayed
mostly with the classic Tibetan look of bright hand-woven stripes
in wool and turquoise, coral, z-beads, and silver jewelry. The choice
was never again as rich as it was that year. I guess it is because
after 1990 the Communist government allowed the villagers to sell
in open-air markets and the tourists began to come into the country
in greater numbers.
next day our group returned early to the lamasery to participate
in the morning meditation. As we approached we could hear the great
long horns positioned on the corners of the inner sanctuary calling
to the four directions. The sound was so deep and full that it sent
shudders through my entire body. I remember entering a room filled
with rows of deep red, woven-wool cushions. From the ceiling hung
layered silken columns made up of pointed strips of rich, colorful
brocade, each different than the next. The many posts supporting
the ceiling were wrapped in intricate weavings telling the endless
history of Tibetan mythology. By the time we took our seats I was
in tears, simply overwhelmed by the energy and beauty of the place.
If you have ever heard the Gyoto monks chant, you can transport
yourself into that morning meditation. There is a leader who makes
the calls, and the monks answer. It is a continuous sound, so profoundly
deep and full that it shuts away thought and allows you to be at
one with your Spirit, your Beloved, your God.
the meditation we were given the opportunity to greet the head Lama,
an elegant figure with a long beard and beautiful twinkly eyes.
He carried his prayer beads in his hands and greeted each one of
us with a blessing. We then proceeded to pass by and turn the large
prayer wheels filled with rolls of thin paper with the Sanskrit
Mani Padme Hum. It is believed that as you spin the wheels,
the meaning of the words go into the atmosphere, spreading compassion
throughout the human race. One can frequently see Tibetans spinning
individual prayer wheels (always clockwise) as they walk through
their daily lives.
Later that day we participated as spectators
in the sacred dances that would complete the Sunning of the Buddha
ceremony. These dances go on for hours. The first person to enter
the arena is a schoolmaster of sorts. He directs the dances, sometimes
with great humor. They are very structured, are repeated several
times, and are traditionally the battle between good and evil. The
costumes range from ferocious to amusing. The Tibetans will dash
in to touch a particular dancer for luck. As in real life, neither
good nor evil wins.
collage to the left was created out of many of my photographs. Although
totally unplanned, the image looks like a great chalice holding
the continuing heritage of Tibetan Buddhism. [Click
to see larger version.]
the jewel in the lotus.
©2003 Hanah Exley